I have always thought “Call me Ishmael” to be a rather camp introduction to a novel. Given the line’s conspiratorial intimacy, I have long imagined it whispered by a drag queen in a dive bar at 3 a.m. This, however, is the fault of my own unseriousness. The resonance of the name Ishmael — Abraham’s illegitimate son by Hagar who is destined to wander the desert — remains the opening example of one of the clearest, cleverest and most consistent of themes in Herman Melville’s magnum opus Moby-Dick, namely, the quest for God.
Religion runs through Moby-Dick. We might almost say that the Bible haunts it. There are the names, mostly of Biblical characters, and even the direct invocation of prophets: Ezekiel, Elijah and, of course, the ur-whale wrestler, Jonah. While ostensibly a book about the whale, the language is all cod-King James, the “thees” and “thous” all pointing to an epic drenched in the Biblical, à la Milton or Bunyan.
At points, there is almost direct quotation from the Bible. “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?,” asks chapter 105. It is stated that he “swam the seas before the continents broke water… over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s Flood he despised Noah’s Ark.” The whale is pre-existent and omnipotent. He is presented as having the attributes of the Divine. The entire passage might be seen as a modern rendering of God’s speech in the Book of Job, when he chastises the mortal for asking whether he was there when he laid the very foundation of the world. Here we have Holy Writ retold and reapplied to the movements of a whale. Moby-Dick then might justifiably be read as an American’s quest to find, and kill, God.
Yet there is an ambiguity in this great American novel’s treatment of faith. As shot through as it is with religion, God himself is rarely mentioned in Moby-Dick. Like the American polis, the entire context is positively marinated in the religious, yet all the while the acknowledged and acknowledgeable existence of God is kept at a distance, at best expressed in veiled or abstract terms. Jesus Christ is barely mentioned at all. It is almost as if the peculiarly American separation of Church and State, where we “do” God but pretend we do not — the direct inverse of the British state’s relationship with organized religion — is played out on the page.
Is this lack of godliness just a blip? Melville was, after all, writing in a world that was still in conceptual spitting distance of the ideal City on a Hill of the Founding Fathers, where faith did good but did so without the coercion of a state Church. Yet fast forward to the period when the United States has developed from bizarre Enlightenment experiment to great power, and a cursory look at the great American novel of the twenties, The Great Gatsby, paints a similar picture.
In Gatsby, God is at best a distant, voyeuristic being. Only the unfortunate George Wilson displays any fear of God, and not much good does it do him. Gatsby himself announces he will tell “God’s truth” and then goes on to lie. In West Egg, Easter, Christmas and other markers of organized religion are the concerns of the rest of the world. Hedonism triumphs while a disappointed Divine looks on. Justice comes, of course, but again at great cost. It is more Greek tragedy than New Testament parable.
It is also salutary to compare two very different great American novels of the Sixties — To Kill a Mockingbird and Portnoy’s Complaint. In both, God is a sort of acknowledged source, of justice and Freudian sexual frustration respectively, but his ways are not the ways of the respective worlds the novels inhabit. So, God becomes the plaything of others, be it the “foot washing Baptists” who threaten Miss Maudie with Hell in Mockingbird or through Portnoy Sr. in the mist of the Jewish bath house, where all the ancient, fearful power of the divine is vested in the character’s “schlong.”
Nixons, Carters, Reagans, Obamas and Trumps have come and gone, seeking each in their own ways to restate something of American religion in a world still shaped by the tumultuous changes of the decade that gave us Mockingbird and Portnoy. Their success has been limited. The world of politics and demographics today speaks of an American crisis of faith, of declines in church attendance and in confidence. It would be odd not to plot this onto the literary life of the United States, thus raising the question: does the American novel today “do God”? And should it?
Of the even more recent novels which we might explicitly identify as “American” in their scope and setting, Jonathan Franzen’s 2021 effort Crossroads has social religion at its heart. Indeed, it has explicitly religious themes and characters: temptation and redemption abound among pastors and youth ministers. Like Ahab, the ill-fated character of Perry is given an obsessive quest for meaning, and while he goes so far as to quiz a rabbi and a Lutheran pastor at length about God during a period of espousing Nietzschean theory, he still ends up driven near-mad, suffering a drug overdose while visiting a Navajo reservation in the Arizona desert. With modern America increasingly looking to its indigenous population rather than to the sea in seeking itself and its redemption from sins past, this provides a helpful modern mirror to Melville. It certainly feels like a sort of 1970s version of being dragged into the sea by a whale.
Back to said whale. In the final chapters, as the denouement nears, we do get a direct mention of God, from Ahab in the very depths of his madness. Ahab cries, in an echo of Moses and Joshua’s defeat of the Amelekites, “Is it I, or God, who lifts this arm?” God is only directly invoked, or rather challenged, by one in the very depths of insanity. Even towards the end, other characters make do with the proxy of the whale. In a desperate attempt to reason with Ahab a sailor bellows: “Moby-Dick seeks thee not, it is thou that madly seeks him.”
Herein, perhaps, lies the particular relationship between Americans, their fiction, and their God. God is something to be not looked at directly, but rather an experience to be survived. Consequently, the quest for God cannot be written about too directly, but is instead represented by the quest for justice, or sexual fulfillment, or social propriety, or a narcotic high. Or, a whale. It is a very Old Testament vision of the Divine, perhaps reflecting the robust views of the key players in the particular origin story told by America’s religious founders.
Compare this to the God of Russian literature — a deity almost maniacally, dangerously, psychologically involved in the lives of his people — or to the God of the English novel, who is, inevitably, bound inexorably in the quest for class. For when the Divine engages with the English in fiction, he invariably does so to exalt the humble and meek or to put down the mighty from their seat. Sometimes, it has to be confessed, he acts the other way round. Undoubtedly it is a very particular vision of the incarnation we are treated to in Barchester or Brideshead, but it is certainly not one that is theologically suspicious of inserting the Divine into the explicitly day-to-day.
Franzen’s latest effort is proof that, in modern America, God is not just a feature of the world of hicks and hillbillies, as he is occasionally still portrayed by elite, liberal anglophone opinion as it clings to the hallowed Weltanschauung developed in the Sixties. But Crossroads is still something of an exception, and one that still dances round with religion as social fact rather than looking God face to face. As it stands, this century will be more global, and thus more religious than the twentieth. Whether serious American literature can or will keep up with an evolving — and increasingly complex— divine presence in the wider world remains to be seen. It may well be that this develops as the concept of the Great American Novel inevitably broadens to include the literature that may well emerge from the republic’s historically marginalized or recent migrant communities — generally groups with a more nuanced and constructive view of religion than the elite who still dominate US fiction. However, as it stands, on the pages of the American novel, God is still a whale.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.